By Dan Harrison
Michael Drennan was on target for Villa in a well-earned draw against Arsenal - as full-back Enda Stevens made his first appearance for the club.
It took just three minutes for Drennan to head the claret and blues in front, with fellow Republic of Ireland youth international Stevens involved in the build-up.
But a second-half strike from former Barcelona academy star Jon Toral earned a share of the spoils for the Gunners at London Colney.
Kevin MacDonald's men went in to the clash a point behind Barclays Premier Reserve League South leaders West Bromwich Albion, who went back to the top with a victory over Chelsea earlier this week.
And, for long periods, the away team looked good for a maximum haul to leapfrog their West Midlands rivals after a storming start to this contest.
In the game's first real attack, Courtney Cameron combined with new boy Stevens down the left before crossing for Drennan to power a header high into the net.
The dream start almost got even better for Villa but James Shea dived to his left to keep out Gardner's long-range drive after the skipper's initial free-kick came back off the wall.
Typically influential in the central ground, Gardner went close again only to drag a shot wide following a driving run past several home defenders.
Although the claret and blue deserved their half-time lead, they had Calum Barrett to thank for two excellent pieces of goalkeeping.
Firstly, the 18-year-old palmed Rio Miyaichi's shot to safety, while he displayed terrific athleticism to dive to his right and save a deflected 20-yard drive from Chu-Young Park.
Arsenal took the momentum from those opportunities into the second-half and Barrett had to be alert again to tip Kyle Ebicilio's shot over the bar soon after the restart.
At the other end, Shea parried Cameron's angled 12-yard drive following a flowing move involving Gardner, Daniel Johnson and Graham Burke.
But the Gunners equalised on 56 minutes. Barrett did well to keep out Daniel Boateng's header from Rhy Murphy's corner but Toral was on hand to convert the rebound from close range.
Villa looked the most likely to grab a winner in the latter stages, although they had to settle for a share of the spoils.
Johnson dragged a shot wide after collecting Drennan's deft lay-off, while Gardner almost caught out Shea with a dipping 35-yard free-kick which went just over.
ARSENAL: Shea, Hajrovic, Angha, Eastmond, Boateng, Hoyte, Murphy, Ebecilio, Park, Toral, Miyaichi. Subs: Rees [for Park, HT], Charles-Cook, Anasah [for Ebicilio, 78], Monteiro (for Toral, 84), Brislen-Hall.
VILLA: Barrett, Webb, Donacien, Williams, Stevens, Taylor, Gardner, Johnson, Cameron, Burke, Drennan. Subs: Grealish [for Taylor, 70], Watkins, Nelson-Addy [for Donacien, 84), Robinson [for Burke, 75], Kinsella.